Savouring space in Scandinavia
STOCKHOLM is one of those cities that is too good to be true. It has no slum areas, the world's only inner city country park and a harbour its inhabitants, all of whom profess to love the place, can swim in, at least in summer.
In winter the wind blows in across the Baltic bringing air so clear and cold that static electricity bolts through you from lift buttons and door handles. The doorman at The Grand Hotel, where King Carl XVI Gustav and Queen Silvia attend functions but are forbidden to sit under the one-and-a-half ton chandelier in the Mirror Room, wears rubber shoes.
Stockholm is proud of its air. It is proud of its architecture, which is as grandiose as anything Paris has to offer, it is proud of its harbour and it is generally proud of itself. Everyone you meet will tell you that you can catch salmon and trout in front of The City Hall. The record for a salmon is 21 kilos.
In winter, weekends are spent eating raw herring and roast reindeer chez famille in centrally-heated suburban apartments. In summer there is the Water Festival, an annual homage to the Baltic, and holiday homes on the 24,000 islands that make up the Stockholm archipelago.
There is, it cannot be denied, a smell of affluence and comfort on that Baltic wind. The men in their tweed greatcoats and the women in their expensive woollen knits only seem to emphasise it.
In The Grand, where executives gather for a smorgasbord breakfast in the seafront conservatory, it is more in evidence.
Outside, the watery Arctic sun turns the hulls of the tourist boats blue then yellow.
Inside, diners tuck into sausages, thick yoghurt and muesli over faxed copies of the day's The New York Times. They can look out over the quayside where Spencer Tracy had his photograph taken in 1952, Elizabeth Taylor in 1953 and Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rosselini in 1953.
The Bergman photograph is scratched and blurred, but you can just about make out behind her the crowds lining the Norrstrom bridge for a glimpse of Sweden's most famous daughter and her beau.
The overwhelming sense Stockholm leaves you with is one of water. One third of the city is sea (another third is parkland and the third third is buildings).
Elegant yachts bob in every inlet. A white clipper, three-masted and as pristine as fresh paint, has been converted into Europe's most appealing youth hostel.
The history of Swedish seafaring did not always run smooth. In 1628 the royal ship Vasa earned itself a place on the world list of great failures when it sank during its maiden voyage, condemning many souls to the deep. It was salvaged in 1971 and now forms the centrepiece of Sweden's most popular museum.
Apart from Bjorn and Benni of Abba, who can sometimes be seen dining in the trendy cellar restaurants of the old town, Alfred Bernhard Nobel is the country's most revered native.
He was descended from naturalist Olof Rudbeck, noted for his description of the lymphatic vessels in 1653.
Gunpowder and oil investments made him a fortune and the Nobel Prizes made him famous. The Swedes have a knack for invention. They also lay claim to the ball-bearing.
Beyond the Stockholm archipelago, which is dotted with russet wooden houses straight from the pages of Hansel and Gretel, the rest of Scandinavia waits.
Sweden's relationship with its neighbours is difficult to fathom. Throughout history they have had spats with the Danes. Stockholm's City Hall tower was deliberately built one metre taller than its namesake in Copenhagen. It is a figurative two fingers, built of brooding dark brick and facing the southern Baltic.
Things are more genial between the Swedes and the Fins. It is a relationship to some extent oiled by alcohol.
There is a Finnish saying that words spoken when drunk have been carefully thought out beforehand. If this is the case, then the Silja Lines vessels that cross the Baltic to Helsinki and back, are resonant with the sound of bon mots.
These ships, floating homages to 1970s interior design, are the Scandinavian equivalent of the booze cruise, invented, I think, by the British. The Silja Symphony has six restaurants, a sauna with artificial foliage and a nightclub where a rock group plays Tie A Yellow Ribbon as the inebriated get more inebriated still. It is, however, a comfortable way to get to the edge of Europe.
Stockholm, despite its milky sunlight and perpetual silence, has a temporal feel. Helsinki is almost out of this world; 80 kilometres from Estonia, touched by frost in late spring, and criss-crossed by cobblestone streets. Here you get the feeling that if you travelled much further, you might fall off.
We are met by Rebekka Mikkola, a guide with the Helsinki Tourist Association who speaks better English than I do, fluent Mandarin and a Taiwanese dialect. This on top of Finnish, which is the most difficult language in Europe, with 16 conjunctions for every verb.
'I often get groups who don't know where they are,' she confides.
'Americans, I have to say, are worst. At the end of their holiday they come up to me and say 'this country is nice. What is it called again'?' Helsinki, the daughter of the Baltic, the white city of the north, is a city of many appellations. And it is nice. It is nicer than anyone has a right to expect for a place which seems so far away, geographically and culturally.
It has Scandinavia's biggest shopping centre, good doughnuts, and is the spiritual home of Lutheranism. Followers pay one per cent of their salary to the Church and around ninety per cent of the people are followers.
Back on board the Silja Symphony, ready for the 6.00 pm overnight sailing to Stockholm, the embarking Finns are already crowding the bars. I am accosted by a large gentlemen in a red pullover with a face to match. He slaps my back and speaks Finnish, continuing to do so even when it must become clear I understand nothing of what he is saying.
The ship slips from the shadow of Helsinki Cathedral and into the Baltic, whose waters in the early evening are as unruffled as glass. Up on deck, I watch the sun playing psychedelic tricks with the sky. The light is another of Scandinavia's joys, as sharp and as refined as the air.
Then it strikes me. The appeal of Scandinavia does not lie in what it has, more in what it has not. It has few people. Six million Swedes share a country larger than the United Kingdom, which has a population approaching 60 million. The space, looking out over the Baltic, seems infinite. And nature seems still in control. Back in Stockholm it is two degrees warmer than when we left, which still makes it only just above freezing.
We have caught the city between a rock and a hard place. Winter is officially done with, but summer has not yet begun. In one month, my guide assures me, the tugboat-shaped ferries will start running from island to island and Stockholm will emerge from its chrysalis into days of 18-hour sunshine.
Cathay Pacific flies to Stockholm via Frankfurt three times a week.
Travel pages edited by Mike Currie, fax 2980-3140, tel 2980-3101